Father’s Waistcoat, 1937 by Grace Pailthorpe (1883-1971)
In Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, sixteen year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for felony murder in New York City. He participated in a robbery that went bad when the store owner was killed with his own gun. Only Steve wasn’t in the store at the time of the robbery/murder–he was playing the role of the lookout. In fact, he didn’t even send a signal of any kind, he just walked out of the store. Before he wound up in jail, Steve attended Stuyvesant High School, where he excelled in his film class. Steve, a sensitive kid from a stable home, despises the violence and cruelty of jail and feels utterly alienated from the reality of his trial. To avoid the intensity of his situation, he writes a diary where he records his feeling. These handwritten passages introspectively contextualize the rest of the narrative, which is composed of Steve’s screenplay of the events of the trial.
Walter Dean Myers (Scorpions, Fallen Angels) is one of the founding writers of the YA movement that emerged in the early seventies (other writers include S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, and Judy Blume), and Monster is written to appeal to high school kids. Although Myers always has his teen audience in mind, he never talks down to them, and even though Monster features a discussion of some “edgy” content (uh…prison rape) it’s always purposeful to the narrative and never lurid or used for the sake of crude shock value. I’ve used this novel in my 10th grade classroom for a few years now and it’s always a big hit (this year we’re reading it in conjunction with Antigone and a viewing of Lumet’s 12 Angry Men). The students generally love it–they get to read the parts in Steve’s film–and it provides a fantastic platform to discuss a number of relevant issues, including justice, prejudice, guilt and innocence, and how we perceive (and sometimes dehumanize) others. At the heart of the novel is Steve’s inward battle to see himself as human and resist the gaze of the prosecutor, jury, and judge, as well as his attempt to escape the way that jail will shape his personality. This psychological/ethical/perceptual dilemma dominates the novel and Myers is content to let moments of irresolution stand in place of easy, platitudinous answers or dogmatic moralizing. This is a great novel for the classroom, but I think adult readers would also enjoy it. Highly recommended.